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July 03, 2013

this is our story

I wonder, as I bounce around in a hired auto, how many stories have been written about this land. Short stories, novels, memoirs, text bookswritten by fascinated foreigners such as myself. They must be almost endless. I watch men perched on the back of a truck in front of my auto. Sweat plasters their shirts to their backs as they bounce down the road ahead of me. My head fills with stories—they come and go; they jolt, jerk and bounce; they take me somewhere, though I am not always sure where.

I met some young foreigners recently. "Have you been here very long?" One gave a sober nod, denoting experience, "Yes, three months." Three months? It sounds so...short a time to be in a place where life takes so long, especially as a newcomer. I have been here six months and still, my washing machine isn't hooked up. Somehow the days pool into weeks, weeks flow into months, and though the current feels slower here, time is passing as regularly as ever. Another one-month veteran of our city told me that every day she has five did-that-really-just-happen? moments. I told her that those moments ease, though I am not sure if they ever completely go away, for anyone who was not raised here. Maybe I have three of those moments per day now. They make for good stories, if nothing else.

I suppose I am fascinated with telling about this place because it feels so different. I just want to record what makes life here so different, before it becomes normal to me. I want to remember the lady sitting cross-legged on my floor, wrapped in a peacock-patterned dress. Her belly hangs from the side of her garment; her smile is cheery. I'm still wiping sleep out of my eyes and she has begun her work for the day, collecting laundry. I want to remember the woman who veiled her face before she greeted us. The touching of an elder's feet to show respect. The beggars with their balloons for sale. The street-side barber's chairs. The way the lower class seem to quietly accept their role as bell boys for the upper class. Stories from other cultures give us insight into culture: theirs and ours.

Have you thought about the mystery and intricacy that is culture? That tangled mass of roots that evidence themselves in our traditions, habits, and so much more?

For example, how did foods develop? Nearly every few days I eat something I've never eaten before. Today it was a thin vegetable, wrapped in a thread and bursting with intense flavor. I could tell you about fantastic vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes I have tried, dishes that use ingredients Westerners have never seen. I could mention the spiciest pepper I've ever eaten (it was hiding under some less-spicy vegetables, kindly delivered by a neighbour in celebration of the kite festival). The people on this land mass have some interesting concoctions.

But isn't it funny how, while preparations change, our basic foods are similar and merely morph as they creep across continents? My Asian corner does share some common ingredients with the Middle and Far East. (When I read a story about Afghanistan, I could suddenly relate to the breads, the pomegranates, the tea.) The Middle East, in turn, shares some flavors with southern Europe, and southern Europe with Northern Europe.... We all depend upon breads and starches, because bread is life. How can there be such diversity, and yet such unity in our food? We coat and garnish differently, but at our core we all need basics: flour, water, salt....

Eastern music is so different than Western. When I first heard music from this part of the world, the women's voices sounded high-pitched and whiny. Their traditional idea of lovely singing was so different than my own. Our employees love to sing popular songs from movies. Slowly, I'm learning to like some of their music. And they are learning to like some of mine. And our bond is over music, whatever its form, because music evokes emotion, tells stories, and awakens memories for all of us. Because our story is bookended by singing. In Genesis, Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh. In Revelation, just and true are Your ways, King of the nations. We were birthed by a song, and we were born to sing forever. 

Living with locals, not expats, reminds me of just how differently I do or think about most everything. A European lady who married a local man agreed, "They sneeze differently. They go to the bathroom differently. They think differently." Not incorrectly, just differently. 

As we accept those differences, it gives us freedom to see how much is similar about us. Don't we all, at the core, respond to the same things? Here, as much as anywhere, people can appreciate authenticity, cheerfulness, trust.... When I am in a cultural quandary, at least I have a basic framework for how best to proceed when everything looks so different on the surface.

And so, I am intrigued by that which is the same, despite our outward differences. We have roots in the same garden, and scraps of same fruit rot our teeth. We all know bread, water, and salt. And can't we together relate to songs and celebrations? We can relate to cities, walls, and gates. Trees, fruit, and choices. Sun, light, and darkness. Marriage, parenthood, and family. These easy words and themes are at the core of our common story. Genesis and Revelation. Alpha and Omega. Beginning and End.

In the back seat of the hired auto, I wrap my scarf closer around my head and avert my eyes, so that the men in the truck won't watch me. I am curt with the auto driver. Four pairs of eyes observe me from a nearby guardhouse, yet they do not make me feel safe. There are many stories to be told from this land, from any land, and not every story is beautiful. Our stories on earth will always have some death, dying, sickness, sighing.

And yet we love stories because we live a story. We love happy endings because we were made for a happy ending. Can we talk about those themes we all know, from salt and light to trees and choices? About the tree of which the leaves offer healing to the nations?

Despite our differences, these are our commonalities. Our local, daily stories vary, but the master narrative is the same. We're all in this together—this is our story.

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